They may have come from different eras with varying styles of delivery, but the curious pairing of Michael Bolton and Gladys Knight at the always alluring Ravinia was linked together by their mutual love of soul music. For Knight, that meant someone who was there from its formative days, whether it was at Motown with The Pips or going solo in her later years, while Bolton obviously worshipped the ground so many greats of yesteryear walked on, despite rising to fame in adult contemporary contexts, then reaching an entirely new generation alongside comedy trio The Lonely Island on “Saturday Night Live.”
However, it was Gladys Knight who ultimately emerged on top of the evening, though at least the fact that fans scored two major attractions for the price of one ultimately made up for those surprising missteps.
Ladies came first during this double bill that found “The Empress Of Soul,” her six-piece band and three backing vocalists spending most of their hour in the distant past, but occasionally tipping their hat to current trends that naturally linked back to what she started in the first place. “You’re The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” featured a smooth outro of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” while Bruno Mars’ “When I Was Your Man” ingeniously paved the way for “If I Were Your Woman.”
At 73, Knight was truly pristine as a singer, though her banter was long-winded and could’ve easily been condensed to fit in more performances. Even so, she effortlessly conquered every attempt, including Motown’s best-selling record of 1967 “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (before Marvin Gaye got his hands on it), Barbra Streisand’s glorious “The Way We Were,” plus her iconic pair “Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye)” and “Midnight Train To Georgia.”
Bolton, his five musicians and two supporting singers had more time allotted but actually made less of the opportunity, personally performing just three original selections while turning primarily to remakes from the recent “Songs Of Cinema” album and other specialty projects. Nevertheless, the 64-year-old was also in flawless voice and could take lots of credit for riding The Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” and Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” back up the charts.
As for the soundtrack selections, Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll” from “Risky Business” made the most effective leap off the silver screen, so much so that it didn’t even need Tom Cruise jumping on the couch. Unfortunately, that same charisma didn’t carry over into his conversations with the crowd, which were stiff, quiet and lacked the warmth of say a Rod Stewart or Barry Manilow.
A duets set with an unbelievably average background singer was also lacking (especially considering it came seconds after Bolton said he passed Knight backstage on a break), starting with his self-penned “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You,” which Laura Branigan famously covered but was never a collaboration in the first place. And notwithstanding the reality that his partner was a far cry from Celine Dion, performing “The Prayer” to pre-recorded backing track felt distant and lazy for an artist of this otherwise elite caliber.
Instead, Bolton fared much better on his own when he hopped upon a platform in one of the aisles to take complete ownership of Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman,” and later on the standard stage, Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind.” Out of his own material, sure there was “Said I Love You…But I Lied” and “How Can We Be Lovers” in addition to the above mention, but “Go The Distance” merely served as an overture prior to his entrance, “Missing You Now” was barely a blip in one of two overly lengthy band solo segments, while “Steel Bars,” “Time, Love & Tenderness,” “Love Is A Wonderful Thing,” “Soul Provider” and a stable of ballads were nowhere to be found.
For a fella who sold 75 million albums primarily from those very selections, it was a perplexing decision, though those willing to embrace Bolton’s further infatuation with the oldies of varying stripes were probably satisfied, if only for the undeniable quality of his interpretations. However, it was Knight who ultimately emerged on top of the evening, though at least the fact that fans scored two major attractions for the price of one ultimately made up for those surprising missteps.
Upcoming concert highlights at Ravinia include UB40 (Sept. 2); Aretha Franklin (Sept. 3); Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons (Sept. 8); Stevie Nicks (Sept. 9-10); Smokey Robinson (Sept. 15) and “I Love The 90s” starring TLC, Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath, Biz Markie, All-4-One, O-Town and Snap! (Sept. 16). For additional details, visit Ravinia.org.